Cognitive Surplus

By Clay Shirky

6/7 stars

I liked this book. It was well written, clear and interesting. I don’t have much to criticize in this particular piece, so below is my summary of the book’s content.

Free time is a relatively new phenomenon. We’ve only really had free time since shortly after the Great Depression.  What do we do with all our wonderful free time? We watch sitcoms. At least, that’s what we did until the internet came about. Since the advent of social media, we have seen a huge increase in amateur creation. Rather than being passive observers, we became active creators. Why? That’s what Cognitive Surplus tries to answer.

Shirky goes back to a previous technological upset to look for clues. When Gutenberg created his movable type press, he inadvertently also created the concept of a publisher. Rather than simply reprinting old classics, a new demand for original work sprang up out of seemingly nowhere. The printers became responsible for what they printed and the publisher was born.  But now things can be infinitely published on the web for little to no cost. There are almost no constraints on what the public can view. This review is being posted on my book review blog as well as emailed to the company. It will take about 30 seconds more effort and will be able to be seen by far more people. This low cost to publishing results in everything from lolcats to carpool sign ups to news reporting. Now, more than ever, amateurs rule the Internet.

Amateurs create for the love of the thing. Gone is the era of the pure consumer. Everyone participates even if that only means posting pictures to facebook or tweeting. But the internet is being used to help foster creativity as well. Fanfic is a good example of this; now there are forums and ways to share your interests with others that were not there before.

Means and motive are not enough. One must have opportunity. Social media helps create groups of people. People are more creative when bouncing ideas off each other. The core members of a group innovate and the peripheral members spread those ideas to other groups. Ideas beget ideas.

But what use are ideas when you don’t have a culture to support those ideas? The culture that you are living in (and sometimes create for yourself) is fundamental to how you will act and react towards things. The culture we need is one of collaboration rather than hoarding information. If you have the tools and the knowledge to do something, you have an opportunity for combinability. Conditions for combinability: the number of people with the knowledge, the cost of sharing knowledge, clarity of the knowledge shared, and a community’s set of shared assumptions about how it should act.

There are a number of different ways that our creativity can be used. We can use it for personal reasons: simply being an active participant in society. We can be communal or public where groups of people collaborate on projects. We can also use the internet for civically. This is when we are trying specifically to engender a social change.

Shirky ends the book with a number of ideas on how to embrace and encourage creativity in the world using our newfound technology. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the development of social media or the web in general.

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